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Inspector Faamatala: The Courage to Lead with Empathy

By Liz Ah-Hi | Re-published from the ACWAP Journal for Women and Policing

Seventeen years ago, second in charge of the Traffic Unit, Inspector Asomualemalama Fa’amatala Vaalele, took a leap of faith and stepped out of her comfort zone to embark on a journey she never thought she had the courage to take.

Leaving behind a nine to five job, the softely spoken former bank clerk followed in her father’s footsteps and joined the Samoa Police where she has since found her voice and established herself as one of the most respected senior female officers in the organization.

“I was inspired by my father who was a former police officer” said Asomua. “It was a struggle for him to provide for us but I saw how devoted he was to his job because he was passionate about being a police officer, helping people and doing right by the law”.

“He spent more time working as a police officer than with us and I tried to understand why my dad looked forward to his job everyday even during natural disasters and emergencies. On his day off, my dad would sit down and tell us stories about his days in the force and his work environment – it was so different to what we were used to.”

“I wanted to be like my father; have a big heart and fight for my family and our community.”

At first the shy young police recruit found it challenging to transition from a routine job to the unpredictable environment of working with the community, dealing face to face with the public on a diverse number of issues that often involved conflict.

“When I started in the police force I learnt very quickly that compared to working in the bank, the police force was much harder than I was comfortable with. It was hard for me to communicate with people but over the years I’ve been able to build up my confidence and my experience in order to serve the public to the best of my ability. As a police officer we need to be approachable and communicate effectively to anyone who comes to the police station regarding their cases or complaints.”

The road to leadership wasn’t easy for Asomua especially spending the early part of her career overcoming barriers as a woman police officer working in a male dominated field compounded by deeply ingrained cultural practices that discriminated against women and prevented their advancement in the organization.

“I will never forget the time when we received a call out and I wanted to attend but my supervisor at the time held me back and questioned why I tried to leave instead of carrying out the database work. It’s very difficult when you first start out wanting more experience but on other hand you have to worry about losing your job if you don’t follow orders”.

 “However, I also understand the difference between lawful and unlawful orders and I realised that if you don’t learn to stand on your own two feet, you’ll never get anywhere. The following day I went back to him and gave him my answer that my career in the Police is not just about earning money, I wanted to learn and gain more experience because I did not want to be stuck behind a desk for the rest of my working life.”

Asomua recalls during the early part of her career, her father was worried about how she would be treated by her male counterparts. In 2017 following an internal policy change preventing immediate family members from working at the same time in the organisation, Asomua’s father made the difficult decision to retire early and allow his daughter to continue on with her career.

 However that did not stop him from being her closest confidante and valued advisor to help her get through the challenging times during her career.

“When my dad retired he advised me to work hard and continue doing my job according to the law and put God first in every situation when it came to difficult times. He was always there to advise and give me the strength to do my job.”

In 2011, after three years in the Police force working in prosecution court unit and forensic unit, she achieved the rank of sergeant. The following year she served 12 months in East Timor where she widened her scope of experience and skills in criminal record keeping and conflict management.

Leadership Awardee- Inspector Fa’amatala Ese Va’alele (Traffic Enforcement Unit)

“I came back looking forward to implementing what I learnt and I started thinking broadly about how I can help other general staff members in the organization with administrative training and confidence building techniques.”

By the time Asomua was promoted again in 2018 to the rank of senior sergeant and transferred to general policing after serving nine years in the Records Unit, she had developed her own style of leadership after embracing her natural maternal instinct when it came to managing and developing the capabilities of her staff.

In the traditional male dominated environment of a police organisation where a more authoritative and stoic approach is expected and even revered, Asomua found the might in vulnerability after spending the major part of her career honing her skills in communications and building relationships with community.

“During my time in the police force, I learned and familiarized myself with how to carry out my job in the office and out in the field. I saw different perspectives amongst members of the public and I would always try and put myself in their shoes during their time of need. I really learned to challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone.”

Celebrating International Womens Day 2023 with staff members

“My staff over the years have always regarded me as a mother figure. I treat everyone under my responsibility with a lot of love, compassion and understanding as if they were a son or daughter so they can grow, develop and do their best work. It is important that I encourage an open environment so I can understand their strengths and weaknesses to help build their capacity.”

 “Being empathetic doesn’t mean that there are no boundaries. I build relationships with my team but they also know I walk my talk when it comes to discipline. I stick to my principles and follow up with a reprimand if orders are not being carried out so they can learn from their mistakes and set a better example to the new recruits.”

Over the last six years the Samoa Police have tackled gender disparity in the organisation resulting in a fifty percent rise in the number of female recruits. Today, women now make up 70% of the executive management team after a record number of female officers were promoted to senior ranking positions. Asomua was one of those women recognised for her leadership and is now second in charge of the Traffic division overseeing a staff of 86 officers.

in 2022 Inspector Vaalele was seconded to the PICP and represented the organisations at the Global Road Safety Partnership Conference in Christchurch 2022

She is confident that this trend will continue as the increase of women in the police force continues to demonstrate that they improve the quality of policing and help promote a culture of community oriented policing.

 “When I started there were barely any women and now there are amazing changes because we have equal opportunity to compete for promotions along with the male officers thanks to the former Police Commissioner, Fuiavailiili Egon Keil who pushed for us to have a voice and be recognised for our work.”

“I believe it is our strength as women to be peaceful problem solvers and as mothers we know how to manage multiple personalities and responsibilities to bring about results that benefit not just families but workplaces and entire communities.”

 “Before I retire it is my goal to mentor the younger generation coming up through the ranks and pass on all I have learned so they can build up their careers. I want to encourage our female officers to take up every opportunity they can to develop their policing and leadership skills and that the idea of becoming a Police Commissioner is not impossible. This is the legacy I want to leave behind.”

  • This article was featured in issue 52 of the Journal for Women and Policing by the Australasian Council of Women and Policing’s (ACWAP)

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